After 2009’s gently amusing Soul Kitchen, you could sense that Fatih Akin was nearing the end of the creative spell that had brought him international acclaim in the early 2000s. A warmer, lighter spin on many of his favorite themes, the picture had a nostalgic aftertaste and used comedy to soften the edges of his perpetually aching characters.
Unfortunately, 2014’s stark departure with The Cut was a complete disaster – an understandable but doomed attempt to expand Akin’s canvas by mixing together history, epic and fairy tale. It was a step too far for a director who’s at his best with stories grounded in raw, exposed reality, rubbing shoulders with contemporary issues while retaining a timeless, abstract perspective.
Now back in the Cannes Competition with In the Fade, Akin has done a bit of course-correcting in all the right ways; his newest film is a compact, efficient three-part thriller morphing swiftly from an exploration of traumatic, violent loss into a clear-eyed courtroom drama, with a revenge-tinted undercurrent moving silently beneath the surface.
Diane Kruger stars as Katja, whose relationship with Nuri has survived drug use and prison time, eventually blossoming into a happy marriage and a quiet, middle-class life in the suburbs of Hamburg, watching 6-year-old Rocco grow up. As the film starts, all of that is wiped out in a racially-motivated bombing of the couple’s travel agency, which leaves Katja alone and in despair.
This is the first of In the Fade’s three sections (‘The Family’, ‘Justice’ and ‘The Sea’) and the one in which the Fatih Akin footprint is more noticeable. With a few, assured brushes, this corner of Hamburg (the director’s hometown) immediately comes alive both in happiness and in tragedy, with the fracture between the two this time more sudden and violent than in Akin’s previous films.
Kruger brings something personal to the table, too; as a German actress who rarely works on home soil (and in her native language), she already carries some of that identitary tumultuousness which defines many Akin characters. Plus, as the blond wife of a deceased Turkish man and as her director’s alter ego in a story inspired by real-life attacks on the Turkish community, she becomes representative of otherness, a vessel for something lost. Such rich tapestry is fully on display in the early scenes depicting the aftermath of the bombing, when the chief inspector tries to get a sense of Nuri’s history and his possible enemies. “Was he a Muslim, was he a Kurd?” he offers. And yet in this grief-fueled, confusing reconstruction of cultural belonging, the most crucial piece of information relates to the mysterious woman that Katja had spotted leaving the bomb in front of the office. “She was German,” she says, “as German as me.”
Shot in a sort of never-ending early morning darkness – with silhouettes photographed in low light and seemingly unable to escape that transitional moment between night and day, when pain and regret hit harder – the film swaps one great location (the sleek but lived-in family home) for another (the geometrical overload of line-of-sights and tile patterns in the courtroom) as it leaves the bulk of the investigation offscreen and puts a couple of neo-Nazis on the stand.
This second section is mostly well-scripted, solid legal material which, if it weren’t for the Greece-set epilogue, would make for an interesting dual-tone approach to the story, in the vein of Tobias Lindholm‘s excellent A War. Instead, whether the third section will be considered earned or completely superfluous is down to audiences’ reaction to Akin’s masterfully irritating close-ups of Hanna Hilsdorf’s Nazi bomber in the second part. As seen from Katja’s perspective during the trial, her at-times vacant and occasionally amused face is so outrageously offensive to offer an added level of tension to those scenes. They get a little payoff when Diane Kruger lashes out at her during a break – reasoning that if her husband had been in her place “he wouldn’t have stood for all that chit-chat” – but it is really just mere simmering before the next stop in Katja’s journey.
Akin has never been shy of taking his characters all the way down their self-determined paths, but it’s still surprising how he chooses to shoot the last scene of the film, almost daring his audience to want something against their better judgement. Her body is going back to what it once was, but that’s not always a sign of growth; sometimes we are “no longer people, just body parts.”